A senior official with Cambodia’s ruling party on Wednesday dismissed opposition leader Sam Rainsy as insincere after he pledged his Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) would scale back criticism of the government for its handling of a border dispute with neighboring Vietnam.
Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan lashed out at Sam Rainsy days after opposition senator Hong Sok Hour was arrested for posting a disputed diplomatic document online relating to the border—a move nongovernmental organizations called “politically motivated” as they demanded his immediate release.
On Monday, Sam Rainsy had met with Hong Sok Hour of the Sam Rainsy Party (SRP), and 14 jailed CNRP officials and activists at Prey Sar prison in the capital Phnom Penh, where he told the media that he would revive a “culture of dialogue” with the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) to secure their release.
Part of doing so he said, would require CNRP members to stop “tickling sensitive issues”—such as the border demarcation with Vietnam—with Prime Minister Hun Sen’s CPP, adding that “speaking out in public does not gain us anything.”
On Wednesday, during a press conference about Hong Sok Hour’s arrest and subsequent charges on forgery and incitement, Phay Siphan suggested that Sam Rainsy had been mocking the CPP as being unable to accept criticism and fired back on a personal level.
“I [recently] said I saw Sam Rainsy’s wife having an affair with someone in a hotel and [Sam Rainsy] suggested it was defamation,” he said.
“I answered that I was only ‘tickling’ [a sensitive issue]. This is unethical language.”
CNRP spokesman Yim Sovann refused to respond to Phay Siphan’s comments, saying only that the opposition “is busy working on border issues, illegal immigration, poverty and other key problems.”
But Am Sam Ath, a senior official with local rights group Licadho, said that a high-ranking government spokesman should know better than to make such comments and urged Phay Siphan to set a better example for the public.
“I think his comment directly affects a person’s honor,” he said.
“If we examine the ‘sensitive issues’ [both Sam Rainsy and Phay Siphan] raised, they are different. [Sam Rainsy] did not make a comparison that affected someone’s honor.”
Phay Siphan’s comments followed similarly personal ones made by Hun Sen who, hours after Sam Rainsy addressed the media on Monday, likened him to the head of “a gang of thieves” bent on souring relations between the CNRP and CPP, according to a report by the Phnom Penh Post.
“A gang of thieves destroying the stability of this country who have come to confess: that is Mr. Sam Rainsy and his party,” the prime minister said during a radio interview.
“While they shake our hands, they step on our toes and use the culture of dialogue to destroy the royal government,” he said, referring to a July 2014 agreement between the two parties to work together which ended a political deadlock in the wake of disputed elections a year earlier.
Hun Sen demanded that Sam Rainsy and the CNRP “correct all the dishonest statements” about the government and the CPP, saying that without such a concession the culture of dialogue between the two parties could not continue.
In response to Hun Sen’s comments, Yim Sovann told RFA the CNRP and CPP need to employ the culture of dialogue in every circumstance, but he added that criticism was a normal part of politics in a democratic society.
Political science professor Ros Ravuth said the culture of dialogue was necessary and urged the two parties to return to peaceful negotiations in order to solve the country’s problems.
“Both parties should speak with each other like family,” he said.
But social commentator Kem Ley told RFA that it was unimportant whether the culture of dialogue exists or not, adding that the CPP is using it as a pretext to weaken the opposition.
“[The two parties] should use existing mechanisms—such as the National Assembly (parliament), or channels between lawmakers and party leaders—to negotiate for the sake of solving the country’s political crisis together,” he said.
Amid CNRP accusations that the government has been ceding land to Vietnam, which invaded and occupied Cambodia in 1979, by using incorrect maps to determine border demarcations, several opposition lawmakers and activists have landed in prison.
On Aug. 5, Cambodian authorities detained three CNRP activists on insurrection charges for their role in a protest that turned violent in July 2014, after convicting 11 other opposition activists—known as the Freedom Park 11—last month on similar grounds and handing them lengthy jail sentences.
Prior to his arrest on Saturday, which was ordered by Hun Sen last week, Hong Sok Hour had posted comments on social media claiming that an article of the 1979 Cambodia-Vietnam Friendship Treaty was meant to dismantle, rather than simply define, the border between the two countries.
He had also posted online two copies of the 36-year-old border agreement with Vietnam containing the article's disputed wording.
On Sunday, Hong Sok Hour was sent to Prey Sar prison and charged with forging a public document, using a forged public document, and incitement to cause serious unrest for social security—which could carry a combined maximum prison sentence of 17 years.
Rights at risk
Late on Tuesday, a group of 13 NGOs issued a joint statement calling for the immediate release of Hong Sok Hour, whose arrest they said was “unconstitutional, politically motivated” and part of a “far-reaching and systematic attack on dissent and democracy” by Hun Sen’s government.
The statement also pointed to the conviction of the Freedom Park 11, the recently passed Law on Associations and Nongovernmental Organizations (LANGO)—widely seen aimed at restricting NGO work in the country—and several other proposed laws, which it said “represent a grave threat to democracy and human rights in Cambodia.”
“The [government] is undertaking a campaign to shut down the dissenting voices that provide the strongest opposition—political opponents, civil society organizations, trade unions, and ordinary people using social media—by exercising complete control over the judiciary and by introducing oppressive laws that violate international human rights standards,” it said.
Also on Tuesday, the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission in Washington issued a statement expressing alarm over the passage of the LANGO and the conviction of the Freedom Park 11, saying the events “raise serious questions about the government’s commitment to human rights.”
“[Hun Sen’s] regime’s ongoing repression of those exercising their legitimate and universally protected rights of free speech and freedom of association is of continuing concern,” the statement said.
The Commission called on Cambodia’s government to honor its international and constitutional human rights obligations by retracting the “unduly harsh and politically motivated” convictions of the Freedom Park 11, and by withdrawing the LANGO.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sarada Taing. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.